Exclusive Interview: Blackwater USA's President Gary Jackson
Blackwater USA is one of the world's largest private military corporations, offering a wide array of security services, including, but not limited to training for law enforcement and military personnel, professional security details protecting against military-level threats, logistical support, as well as peacekeeping and stability operations. In military circles, Blackwater has a reputation for excellence, reliability and strong management. To the rest of the world, Blackwater is an enigma.
The company was founded by US Navy SEALs and SEAL culture has strongly influenced Blackwater's corporate culture; this influence includes not only a strong sense of patriotism, but also discretion. Its executives rarely talk to the press, so I am particularly delighted to present an exclusive interview with Gary Jackson, president of Blackwater USA.
Hillhouse: Over the past four years, there’s been a quiet revolution in how America fights her enemies and Blackwater USA is the vanguard of this transformation, but, out of necessity, it’s all happened very fast and with little planning. I’ve heard a lot of stories about the early days in Iraq and what seat-of-the pants operations all the private military corporations were while everyone was doing his best to figure things out as he went along. What lessons have you learned over the past four years? How has the Blackwater organization changed?
Jackson: There has been a lot of talk about a revolution in military affairs. While change has been a lot more visible the last few years, it was well underway before 9/11 and likely started with the end of the Cold War. To call Blackwater the vanguard of the transformation is overstating our role. The real vanguards are the military and civilian professionals who ensure our national security system is best prepared to protect our country.
As far as operational challenges, any organization operating in a region of conflict, especially one as dynamic and challenging as the Middle East , adjusts their tactics and procedures as they learn more about the intricacies of their environment and as that environment changes. Blackwater has been no different in that regard.
As far as how we’ve changed, obviously providing private security services is a much larger segment of our business than it was four years ago. We’ve also diversified into other areas, such as logistics services and manufacturing. But the important thing to remember about Blackwater is that our roots and our strength lie in our military and law enforcement training—we were doing that long before we were asked to form security teams, and it will be a critical part of our future. We’re the only private security company that has made the kind of investment required for large-scale training of federal and local authorities, and we’re continuing to expand that support with new facilities—one in Illinois for law enforcement training, and one in California for military and law enforcement training. Those initiatives have no connection to our private security work, there’s just a critical shortage of first-class training facilities for those who serve our country in uniform.
Hillhouse: The bulk of your contracts are with the US government, but you also offer your services to private and foreign interests, subject to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR.) How do you determine who you will take on as a client? Have you ever turned any down?
Jackson: Our first commitment is to supporting the national security and foreign policies of the United States. We won’t entertain any client that would conflict with that. Blackwater has turned down many opportunities for work. And you bring up a good point with ITAR, which is part of the US system of export control laws. Put simply, no US Company or citizen can supply military- or police-type goods or services to foreign persons without a license from the US Department of State or Department of Commerce—and they certainly aren’t going to grant a license involving an unfriendly nation.
Hillhouse: Author Jeremy Scahill has called Blackwater’s founder a “Christian supremacist” and has claimed that he has created, “a private army to defend Christendom around the world against secularists.” Does Blackwater employ chaplains like the regular military? If so, what is their role and what prompted you to add this position?
Jackson: First, we have no private army. What we do have is a team of military and law enforcement veterans and other motivated, capable Americans who protect diplomats, provide training, and offer logistic services, and we do those things in support of friendly nation peace operations around the world, including support of some of our Muslim allies. While I hesitate to discuss his personal life, Mr. Prince is a practicing Roman Catholic and I assure you is no radical. His views, which others have inflated to serve their own agendas, are his own and he makes no effort to force them on anyone at Blackwater. We have people of many faiths at Blackwater. Just like many police departments or military units, we do have a chaplain on staff, Father Pucciarelli. He is the former Chaplain of the Marine Corps with more than 30 years of service. He offers non-denominational services and counseling for our people when they request or need it. His experience with counseling active-duty service members who served in conflict perfectly fits with our culture. He adds tremendous value and is an indispensable resource for us.
Hillhouse: How involved is Erik Prince in the day to day business of Blackwater USA? What is his current role with the company, in practical terms?
Jackson: As the founder and CEO of Blackwater, Mr. Prince is as involved in the business as any CEO would be.
Hillhouse: Does Blackwater hire individuals who are openly gay?
Jackson: To be frank, I really don’t care whether a given employee is gay. It doesn’t really have much to do with whether an individual can accomplish their job, and that’s our concern.
Hillhouse: Blackwater personnel with security clearances are required to swear an oath to the US Constitution, just as US military officers do. Do Third Country Nationals (TCN) swear any oaths? How are they educated about the values and ethics they are supposed to uphold?
Actually, the oath to our Constitution, as far as Blackwater is concerned, is not limited to the security clearance context. Legally we can’t require anyone to swear the oath, but nearly everyone volunteers to do so. As far as the Third-Country Nationals that we are required by USG contract to use, we can’t ask them to swear the same oath, but all of Blackwater’s deploying professionals, both US and TCN, undergo extensive training in core values, leadership, and human rights before they deploy. Each of them is issued a copy of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their native language to carry with them and remind them of their commitment to legal, moral, and ethical standards.
Hillhouse: Blackwater USA has an unprecedented concentration of military expertise and force in the hands of a private corporation. Together with your affiliates Total Intel and Greystone, you control a capacity that equals or surpasses the intelligence and Special Forces capabilities of most nations and some of this capacity is being marketed to Fortune 500 companies and foreign governments. What prevents this from being used against US interests? How do you evaluate a situation and a client before taking on a project? Who will you categorically not work for?
Jackson: It is important to know that Total Intelligence Solutions (TIS), while owned by Mr. Prince, is absolutely separate from the Blackwater family of businesses. TIS markets itself primarily to corporate clients. Again, Blackwater supports US national security and foreign policies. We will not undertake work that is contrary to that. Any transfer of defense articles to foreign actors requires licensure from the Departments of State and Commerce. We evaluate clients through research and due diligence, we ensure they are legitimate actors who support freedom and security, and we only take on work that is sanctioned by the US Government. I don’t run Greystone, but I can tell you that it is run by US citizens, who have the same commitment and the same export restrictions.
Hillhouse: For most of the Iraq war, contract soldiers have operated in a legal vacuum. Last October the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) seemed to be extended to contractors. Is this the best way to introduce some level of legal accountability to contractors?
Jackson: Actually, there are quite a few federal laws that regulate contractors. The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) creates jurisdiction for federal court trials, and the wrongdoing itself is covered under statutes like the War Crimes Act, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, the Anti-Torture Statute, the Defense Base Act, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and a whole raft of other domestic regulations, not to mention international prohibitions. The issue has never been about regulation; rather, it has always been about a lack of enforcement. I can’t put it any more simply—we don’t need a new law, we need to enforce the ones we have. Blackwater has always supported increased enforcement of these existing laws. Frankly, and this is a personal view, more money and more effort needs to be directed to that end in general, not just with regard to overseas contractors. As far as the UCMJ, I understand the recent change has not yet been fully implemented, but as you know, there are serious legal and civil liberties concerns about trying civilians at military courts martial which are being explored in journals and the media. There are any number of federal civilians who participate in US Government security operations who fall under federal court, not military, jurisdiction so it is difficult to see why private security professionals working in US Government security operations, particularly on non-DoD work, should fall under the UCMJ. In the end though, we support holding contractors to account for any wrongdoing that may occur, under whatever appropriate vehicle it is done.
Hillhouse: Given Blackwater’s experience in Iraq over the past four years, do you see any changes that could be made in how contractors are used that could improve the security situation?
Jackson: Overall, coordination between all US and allied actors in Iraq has improved. Remember, our services are driven by demand created by an ever-changing threat environment. Trying to create absolute boxes (except for legal ones) marginalizes the private sector’s greatest contributions: speed and flexibility. We can support US interests in many circumstances but the policy decision to do so rest in the US Government.
Hillhouse: Last year at the Special Operations Forces Exposition and Conference (SOFEX), Cofer Black offered a brigade-side private army to assist with humanitarian problems and others. Has anyone contracted for this service? Do you currently hold contracts with any foreign governments?
Jackson: We are not a private army. We do not undertake offensive missions. Ambassador Black was speaking to a military audience and used the military term “brigade-size” to loosely convey how many people would be involved in an innovative concept that deserves discussion and debate. The question is not, “why would we use the private sector in humanitarian operations”, but, “why aren’t we using the private sector to the fullest extent possible to reduce human suffering around the world?” Member nations of the UN, NATO, AU, EU, etc. have their own defense interests to deal with before they commit troops to the ever-growing number of peace operations throughout the world. Their constraints actually encourage bad actors to prosecute ethnic cleansing and genocide operations. We live in a world where innocents are killed every day in large numbers, yet international organizations are sometimes so captivated by process that they seem to forget that the primary goal is to stop the violence first. The private sector can play a significant role in that effort as well as help provide secure environments in which NGOs can deliver their desperately needed services.
We do have contracts with friendly foreign governments, all of which are accompanied by the necessary licenses and approvals by the US Government.
Hillhouse: Coordination among private military corporations (PMCs) and between PMCs and the military in Iraq has been a longstanding issue. Have the Aegis regional cooperation offices contributed to a solution? What are the largest coordination issues currently?
Jackson: The US Regional Cooperation Offices have dramatically improved over time. The information provided and disseminated is invaluable. The challenge now is to ensure the info makes it to the men and women on the ground every day, no matter where they’re operating.
Hillhouse: How is your own armored vehicle, the Grizzly, working out? Does the use of such a signature vehicle make your teams a more desirable target for insurgents?
Jackson: The Grizzly is going into production now. It is the most innovative personnel carrier-type armored vehicle designed to date, and it provides protection unmatched by pretty much anything but a tank. Predicting who insurgents will target is a difficult task, but in today’s threat environment, I’d rather be in a Grizzly than any other APC out there.
Hillhouse: How has the role of the Little Birds Quick Reaction Force (QRF) team changed after the acquisition of the AB-212/412 fleet?
Jackson: To protect operational security, we do not discuss our support operations. We adjust our operations based on the threat.
Hillhouse: I’ve written on this blog, “ Having a company like Blackwater around is like having a wolf as a house pet. They’ll break a lot, shit on a lot and probably eat your cat, but they can be very loyal, particularly when there’s a break-in. And on 9/11, we had a hell of a break-in. But then I love my cat...and that’s the dilemma we all have to figure out because BW isn’t going away and neither are the dangers of the post-9/11 world.” Keeping with the metaphor, a lot of people are scared the wolf will eat the house cat. Any comment?
Jackson: Sure, two comments actually. First, the same thing can, and has, been said of the military itself. At the end of the day, though, Americans have a long and honorable tradition of respect for elected government and the rule of law. That is really what prevents our military from departing from their assigned role. The majority of our security professionals are US veterans, and to claim they all checked those values at the door doesn’t make sense. And while we don’t discriminate against legal immigrants, the remainder of the men and women who make up Blackwater are dedicated Americans who proudly support those traditions. So, beyond the fact that our team is tiny compared to our own military which is over 1200 times bigger than we are, we’re citizens who strongly believe in democracy and the rule of law.
Second, as far as your metaphor itself, describing Blackwater as the wolf is probably not accurate because it implies a naturally sinister disposition and that is simply not true. A sheepdog is a more appropriate description. Indeed, there are wolves in the world and they plot every day to do harm to the peaceful sheep. The sheep want peaceful and productive lives and to live freely and safely with other sheep. Unguarded, however, the sheep, who are tolerant, are easy prey for the wolf. The sheepdog wants the same thing. He wants to freely and peacefully coexist with the sheep, but he has a developed capacity to protect against the wolf when necessary. The sheepdog is honorable, committed, and undeterred from his mission of defending when called upon the flock whose life he respects and admires.
Gary Jackson is president of Blackwater USA. Born in the UK, naturalized as a United States citizen in 1969, he has been with Blackwater for 9 years, basically since its inception. Enlisted in the Navy in 1975, he attended Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training in 1976. His first duty station was SEAL Team ONE and he was commissioned as a Chief Warrant Officer in 1989. Mr. Jackson retired from the US Navy in 1998 after 23 years of service. He assumed the position as president of Blackwater in October 2001. He has been married for 28 years and has a son and daughter-in-law both in the US Air Force.